All but one MP on the federal ethics committee has agreed with a proposal to reduce cooling-off periods for lobbyists doing political work.
Feedback from the committee on the proposed change was sent to lobbying commissioner Nancy Bélanger on March 20.
Bélanger is in the process of updating the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct, which governs how paid lobbyists operate on Parliament Hill. She previously told Canada’s National Observer her intent with the update is to clarify the rules for the benefit of both lobbyists and the department. This includes rule changes that would reduce the amount of time a lobbyist must wait between helping on a politician’s campaign and lobbying them in government, also known as a cooling-off period.
The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics wrote a letter to Bélanger after studying the updates to the code and hearing from witnesses. The letter broadly agreed with many of the changes Bélanger put forward and issued recommendations, but noted NDP MP Matthew Green opposes reducing cooling-off periods to one or two years for certain political work and instead would have kept them as is: a full election cycle.
“The last thing somebody wants to see is somebody running a campaign for somebody who becomes minister, and then they have the ability to lobby them on behalf of big corporations or people with a financial interest,” Green said in an interview with Canada’s National Observer.
Under the current code, a paid lobbyist who works on a politician’s campaign can’t contact the individual for a full election cycle afterwards to avoid politicians feeling an obligation to them while in office. Bélanger’s changes would shorten those limits to two years for lobbyists who work closely with a candidate (for example, on a fundraising campaign) and one year for lobbyists who do less involved activities like canvassing.
This change “raised the biggest flag” for Green, who sits on the House ethics committee. He wanted to maintain the current cooling-off period, at a minimum, the letter noted, while the other 10 MPs on the committee agreed with the commissioner’s proposal.
The letter suggested the code should define certain terms — particularly “frequent and interactive interactions” and “full-time” and “near full-time” — to decide whether a one- or two-year cooling-off period will apply to political work. Bélanger was already contemplating adding some definitions, according to the committee.
Some groups have advocated for stricter cooling-off periods.
Five years should be the minimum cooling-off period for less significant political activity, and more significant involvement should trigger an extension to 10 years, according to a letter to the lobbying commissioner from Democracy Watch, a non-profit, non-partisan organization advocating for democratic reform, government accountability and corporate responsibility. The letter was signed by 14 organizations, including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Climate Action Network, Dogwood, Ecology Action Centre, OpenMedia, Sierra Club B.C., Stand.earth and Unlock Democracy Canada. In early March, more than 30 law and political science professors signed on to a Democracy Watch letter urging the ethics committee to reject the proposed changes.
Lobby groups, on the other hand, argue the cooling-off periods are too stringent and interfere with individuals’ rights to participate in electoral politics under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The committee noted this concern in its letter to Bélanger.
Green’s position is that it's a reasonable limit on Charter rights to restrict the way in which professional lobbyists and campaign staffers interact with government MPs and cabinet ministers.
“I think that our democracy is fragile,” said Green. “Canadians are rightfully cynical, and the perception of there being a bit of a revolving door between campaign operatives and paid lobbyists only fuels that cynicism.”
Committee vice-chair and Liberal MP Iqra Khalid told Canada’s National Observer in an emailed statement that the current cooling-off period rule “was not specific and created some measure of confusion for registrants.” The new rules, she said, provide clarity and balance to the “importance of free and open access to government” and “the need for Canadians to be able to recognize who is lobbying the government.” The recommendations in the committee’s letter intend to provide even more clarity on the new rules to ensure compliance, said Khalid.
The new code would also change rules around gift-giving. The commissioner proposed a low-value limit of $40 and would set an annual limit for all allowed gifts at $80 in an attempt to offer lobbyists clear guidelines. The committee recommended increasing the gift allowance to $200 and the hospitality allowance (for refreshments and food provided at receptions or in-person meetings) to $200.
It also suggested exempting sponsored travel — “where it serves a legitimate purpose” — from the gift limits based on concerns raised by witnesses that the low gift limit would effectively prohibit lobby groups from paying for politician’s travel.
This view is not shared by Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and one of the most vocal critics of the proposed changes.
“If a lobbyist or lobby group gives an MP a trip as a gift, it is never legitimate,” Conacher told Canada’s National Observer.
“Lobby groups that give such trips to MPs claim that they are just educating MPs about an issue. If MPs want to learn about an issue, they can travel on their own office budget or apply for money from Parliament to travel and then justify to the auditor general, the media and the public,” he said.
Conacher warns that under the current wording proposed by the commissioner, lobbyists can fundraise an unlimited amount of money during a campaign and lobby politicians immediately after without being subjected to the one-year cooling-off period, as long as they do it less than near full-time and without frequent or extensive contact with the politician or party.
As lobbying commissioner, Bélanger operates independently and is not obligated to act on the committee’s recommendations and feedback, Green emphasized.
“Commissioner Bélanger appreciates the work of the committee on the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct and is carefully considering the recommendations before finalizing the code,” the commissioner’s staff told Canada’s National Observer in an emailed statement.
Green thinks there's “larger conversations” to be had around the “unequal and, in my opinion, undemocratic access that some people have to decision-makers.” He mused that MPs could perhaps respond to that larger issue with a private member’s bill, but said in this moment, it's out of their hands.
“It seemed to me that those with both the most to lose and the most to gain had the most amount of input. And that's part of the problem,” said Green. “The average Canadian should have equal access to the moneyed interests that fund the lobbying ecosystem here in Ottawa, the culture of lobbying. And when you don't have that kind of equity of access and power then that, to me, is a threat to democracy.”
Conacher says the changes to the code are “deeply unethical and will allow for corrupt favour-trading between lobbyists and politicians.”
If Bélanger goes ahead with her proposed changes, “Democracy Watch will file a lawsuit challenging the new rules as they will violate voters’ constitutional democracy rights to government integrity, equal participation in policymaking processes, and adequate information to make voting decisions,” Conacher said in a press release.
“The NDP has said it opposes the changes, but is it going to do anything more to try to stop the changes, like introducing a resolution in the House opposing the changes that dares MPs from other parties to publicly approve them?” he asked.